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The Wonderful Life of Isabelle Mercier

by Rolf Slotboom |  Published: Nov 01, 2005

Isabelle Mercier – ready for action

It was the beginning of 2003. Just a couple of months prior to that, I had seen Isabelle Mercier in action for the first time. It was at the 2002 Master Classics of Poker in Amsterdam, where she finished second to the young Swede Koray Saka in the €820 no-limit hold'em event. I was covering the event as a reporter and had been able to watch her very closely. She was stylish and elegant, certainly, but she also seemed a bit disinterested at times – and yes, it needs to be said, maybe a tad arrogant, as well.

In my report, I wrote that during the decisive hand, she probably made one or two mistakes that cost her the tournament. Why did I write that? Well, basically because it is my job to try to be as objective as possible. Of course, I could just as well have written something completely different: that during this entire event, I had not been able to keep my eyes off her; that this attitude of hers, this calmness, this friendliness, but not too friendly, all had me quite dazzled. I could have written that – but I didn't. I simply stuck to the story.

Anyway, at the beginning of 2004, I sent an e-mail to Isabelle. I offered to do the reporting for an upcoming major event at the beautiful and prestigious Aviation Club (ACF), and Isabelle is the manager there. Frankly, I didn't care that much for the job, I just wanted to act important – but that's not what you usually tell people when you apply for a job.

She wrote back, and, indeed, was very complimentary about my work. I was as happy as a little boy.

Subsequently, we met again. I was working at the Aviation Club, taking care of the reports for the big event there – in this case, the $10,000 buy-in
WPT event.I also got to interview Isabelle.

When she walked up to me at the bar of the Aviation Club, I once again felt like a little boy, and all I could think was, "Isabelle, just take this chair and stay there forever." I pulled myself together, and got ready for business.

Card Player College: You have had quite an interesting life. Where did you come from and how did you end up doing what you do now?

Isabelle Mericer: I started working at a very young age. I even worked full time in a casino at night while studying at college during the day. I always had wanted to be independent, and, in fact, I started traveling at quite a young age, just 18. I spent quite some time in New Mexico studying, and in the end I was 23 when I got my master's degree in international law.

One needed six months of practice to actually get that official title, so I did it. But, to tell you the truth, I didn't like law one bit, and I especially disliked the fact that my alarm clock was always ringing, that I had to get up early, day in and day out. So, when the six months were up, I sent my resume to about 100 companies around the world, stating who I was, what I had accomplished, and that I was simply eager to travel. If they could offer me a good job, I would be willing to work and live wherever the job may be. To my surprise, quite a few companies responded in a positive manner. In the end, the Aviation Club in Paris was the best choice for me. Being from Quebec, I am a native French speaker. I already had some casino experience, and, most of all, working at the Champs Elysées just seemed so exciting. Indeed, it was. I have never regretted going there, not for one minute.

CPC: OK, so you started working as a dealer at the Aviation Club, and you quickly worked your way up to being a manager there, becoming the right hand of the boss, Bruno Fitoussi. Now, by all accounts, this must have been an excellent job. You had the chance to travel, to meet all kinds of famous players, and probably made decent money. Yet, you gave all of this up to pursue a career as a poker pro – a shaky and insecure existence, to put it mildly. Why?

IM: Well, it may have seemed a somewhat rash move, but I don't consider it to be that risky. I mean, the worst that could happen was that I would lose all of my money. Now, I hardly had any money to begin with, so it was not like I had a lot to lose. Yeah, my job – but, hey, I was ready for the next step, and I felt I had to broaden my horizons. After a great holiday, I returned to the ACF thinking just one thing: I want out. It had nothing to do with not liking my job there anymore; it was just that I was ready to take on a new challenge. Perhaps the decision was a bit rash, because my starting bankroll was only $10,000. What's more, it was not like I had that $10,000 in my pocket; I had to be very creative to actually come up with that amount. But, that's just me: I want to live life to the fullest, and I don't want to let go of an opportunity that I know could make me very happy.

So, you became a pro in January 2004, and you've had some great results recently. But, playing devil's advocate, I would say that you may have many final tables and indeed two tournament wins, but no really big ones yet. In fact, your biggest cash ever is still your second-place finish in the 2002 Master Classics. Now, taking into account that you have entered lots of big events lately, this must be quite disappointing. What's your view on your performances so far? Are you pleased with them, and are you still as happy with this move of yours as you were in the beginning?

IM: Well yes, extremely happy! You know, the first six months that I was officially a poker pro were quite a struggle. I was playing in small cash games, and when I say small, I mean really small. I was not doing that well until I won the WPT Ladies Night Out Invitational. After that, PokerStars took me under its wing, and I could suddenly enter all the big tournaments that, until then, I could only dream of taking part in.

When I critically analyze my results to date, it is clear that I often freeze when I get to the point in a tournament when things get truly important. This is usually the final three, or the final table, but in some cases even the final three tables. Either way, I often tend to become too conservative at that stage, when I should be continuing the aggression for which people know me. But, on the other hand, I do have a long list of excellent results, and I have proved that I am better than average – which is not bad for someone who has been playing seriously for just over a year. However, I don't want to stop here. It's not like there are 200 or 300 top players in Europe; I am fairly certain I could easily work my way up to being one of the best 10 players here. I know what I'm capable of, and I am very serious about improving. I'm also very aware of my specific weaknesses. Now, the combination of these factors should ensure that, in the future, I will be able to finish things off – especially at the biggest and most prestigious events.

CPC: You are Canadian, but when I see you, you always look so French: stylish and elegant, but also a bit eccentric and even somewhat arrogant at times. Do you feel more Canadian or French?

IM: I feel like neither. More than anything, I probably feel international. I truly like living out of my suitcase, spending one-third of my time in Europe, one-third of my time in the United States, and one-third of my time in the rest of the world, including Canada. I guess I just feel good anywhere.

You are one of the few people in poker who likes to dress up, who is fond of wearing some exclusive, and rather expensive, brands. Are they in some way important to your game, or do you wear them just because they make you feel comfortable, because it is something that you like to do?

Well, the first reason is that I like to spend the money that I win. So, knowing that I don't have a home and truly live out of my suitcase, I decided that instead of buying lots of cheap stuff, I would be better off buying a little bit of expensive stuff. Yes, my clothes make me feel good, but I used to wear them way before I started playing poker. What has changed nowadays is that I wear more makeup than before. Without makeup, I look like a 17-year-old, and because I want to be feared at the poker tables, at least somewhat, I simply have no choice but to wear it. Also, I once saw a picture of me in a magazine when I had no makeup on and was seated next to someone who was wearing a lot, and I just thought it didn't look good. I guess it is just necessary with all the media attention that I get.

I don't get to wear many kinds of different clothes anymore, because I always wear my PokerStars sweater at the tables. This sweater has my "No Mercy" nickname on it, and sometimes I have to smile at myself when I make an incredibly stupid move, and then see this fierce "No Mercy" sign on my shirt. Ah, well …

I read somewhere that after you quit your job at the ACF in order to become a pro, you organized an open-door sales weekend at which you sold everything you owned, so you could then go live out of your suitcase and start traveling the world. Is that exactly how things went, or is that just a free, and somewhat romantic, interpretation of the actual situation?

That is exactly what happened! I posted on a website for French-speaking people that I would be selling all of my stuff – or even better, that I would give away all of my stuff for almost free, and that people could simply come over and get it. The place was cleared in two days! Ever since that day, I have been living out of my suitcase, and the way things are looking, that's not about to change in the near future.

CPC: When doing research for this interview, I read a number of quotes that I would like to share with you. I found them interesting, and hope you can comment on them.

Quote No. 1: "I've been criticized by men for not having good poker etiquette."

WPT creator Steve Lipscomb poses with former Ladies Night champion Isabelle Mercier and newly crowned champion Jennifer Tilly.

IM: That thing just makes me furious! After I had won the WPT Ladies Night Out, I got lots of comments from people who said I had been too serious, too aggressive, too intense, too everything, I guess. But, I think I have great poker etiquette! I never yell at the dealers, I never yell at my fellow players, and I basically never do anything at the table that is out of line. Yet, just because I am a girl, I cannot be intense, I cannot be serious, and I cannot try to make my opponents feel uncomfortable at times. When Tony G – don't get me wrong, he's someone I really love – says things at the table like, "You are going to die!" nobody says a thing, but when I sit at a table, I should suddenly be a lovely young girl who smiles at everyone.

Quote No. 2: "I've got no interest in settling down, in marriage and children."

IM: I don't believe in marriage, it just doesn't serve any purpose. It often just keeps the women in their place, and as you should know by now, that's not something I think highly of. Maybe after being with someone for 30 or 40 years, one could claim that marriage has a purpose, because then you could say: Baby, you are really the only one for me. But people say that in front of the whole world when they barely know each other, and to me that doesn't seem right.

Children? I had to give away my cat – so what would I do with a kid? No, really, maybe if someday I meet a great guy, yes. But even then, I would still want to travel around the world, and then spend some quality time with my kid when I'm back, the same way so many men do nowadays. When women say things like this, it is just not accepted, as if that would make you a bad mother.

Quote No. 3: "I did have a relationship with another poker player, but I kept beating him."

Yes, and I guess now you want to know whom I was referring to, right? (Laughing) Well, I am not going to tell you! Besides, this quote was not exactly what I said. My exact words were that I was a slightly better player overall, but I certainly wasn't beating him all the time. Still, because this was someone who was considered to be a brilliant mind, his ego just couldn't stand getting beaten by a girl. We were together for only two months, so it is not really worth mentioning.

I know what you are saying: "Hey, the boys are all standing in line for you," but I can tell you, I don't see any line. Most of the poker players I meet are either very old or very young. There are not many guys of, say, 30 to 35 who are good-looking, nice, interesting, and reliable. Besides, even if I could find someone like that, he would have to be a hell of a guy to cope with me. I get bored very easily, so the guy would have to be a superentertainer, never get tired, and never rest. It may be just too much to ask for; I'm my own worst enemy in this respect.

CPC: Continuing with the subject of men, you have been great friends for a very long time now with Bruno Fitoussi, your former boss at the ACF. I saw you guys at the World Heads Up in Barcelona and you both showed a lot of interest in each other's performance. I thought that was great to see. Also, I heard that many great players have helped you to improve your game. Can you expand on that a little?

The six players in the WPT's Ladies Night III, from left to right: Aidiliy Elviro, Marsha Waggoner, Jennifer Tilly, Cecelia Mortensen, Isabelle Mercier, and Teresa "London" Gallagher

IM: Bruno's been the most important person. In all the years that we have worked together at the ACF, we must have played hundreds of heads-up matches, and we used to talk about the game all the time. Bruno was the first person to have faith in my poker abilities, and it was he who sponsored me into the Master Classics event in 2002, in which I finished second. Now, ever since I turned pro, I have gotten considerable help from some of the best players in the world. For instance, Paul Magriel has helped me a lot, and in addition to that, Dave Ulliott and David Benyamine have taken a lot of their time to help me improve. Also, I worked with Gus Hansen on a poker book, and learned a whole lot from him. The project fell apart, and all the people involved in it went separate ways, but the knowledge I gained there was invaluable.

You have been with PokerStars for quite a while now. What do you think about this deal? What have they done for you? Do you like it, or are there also some things that you don't like?

Well, I can only say that they have been great to me. I have never had any real money. I still don't have much. But, I do get the chance to perform in the biggest events in the world without having to put up any money myself. So, I don't feel any money pressure at any point of an event, not even at the final stages. Without PokerStars, I would probably still be struggling in these small-stakes money games. So, basically, they have helped me skyrocket my way to the top of international poker, and I get to play with some of the best players in the world. Because of PokerStars, I've gotten much more exposure, and it has helped me grow even further both as a person and as a player.

Now, obviously, not everything is great. For instance, you give away some part of your freedom, but this seems like a small sacrifice to me. As for the meetings, the interviews, the pictures, and so on – I love them all. The only thing that I don't like is something that has nothing to do with my sponsor. Because of all the traveling, the interviews, the meetings, and such, I have to do a whole lot of organizing – and if you know me just a little bit, you know that I don't find this the most exciting way to spend my time. But, hey, hopefully I will win the WPT soon; then I'll be able to afford my own personal assistant.

Is it important to you that you will be 30 soon? Do you feel bad about it, and will you make some changes in your life now that people won't automatically label you as "young" anymore?

The fact that some of the attractive guys seem to be getting younger all the time doesn't help. Still, as I said before, I will try to create the most important change myself: becoming a millionaire. You know me well enough to realize that I will give my all to accomplish this. By the way, in all honesty, I have also bought some lottery tickets, just in case. I have given myself two shots at becoming a millionaire before 30. I just don't know which of the two gives me better odds – the lottery or the WPT!

OK, Isabelle, thanks for all your time. I have decided to give you the final word. Is there anything that we have not mentioned yet, something important that you might want to add, or that you think needs to be said?

I guess it is a little piece of general advice. You have talked a lot about all of these moves I have made, the risks I have taken, all of these seemingly rash decisions. But in my view things are simple: You should always follow your heart. So many people I know are unhappy in their lives and unhappy in their jobs, but feel like they have no other choice. I say there is always a choice. I read somewhere that 90 percent of people have regrets right before they die, and more than anything, these regrets are about the things they haven't done. I am pretty certain that I am part of the other 10 percent. I try to live life as though every day could be the last, and therefore I try to get the most out of everything that I do. In poker, this means that I will continue to give the game my all, in order to get to the top. I know I've got the ability, and I certainly have the determination. I will simply pursue these goals of mine with my entire heart, and hope to be rewarded in the end.